Watch the Tack Faculty Lecture

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We were pleased to broadcast live audio and video streaming of the Tack Faculty Lecture on March 22, 2017.

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Question & Answer Period

Viewers were invited to submit questions during the lecture using the #wmTackLecture hashtag on Twitter, or in the comments of the Facebook Live stream. Dr. Vishton's answers to all of the questions asked during the Q&A period are listed below.

Free will? Yes. No. Sometimes....when you're robbing the bank?

The material that I presented on March 22 was very related to the question of free will, but the theories and evidence-based reasoning become much more complicated - and muddled - when this is addressed. As fascinating as it is, I don't think it's possible to fully address the concept of free will from a scientific perspective, and so I avoided it for this talk. Let me explain this a little. If your decisions are made by something other than your conscious thought processes, then it implies that they are controlled by something outside of the domain of your free will. From this perspective, I might have entitled the lecture "The Illusion of Free Will." On the other hand, I still argued that our actions are controlled by processes that take place in our brain. Perhaps these processes are unconscious, but still "free." I did argue that subtle external factors influence our behaviors in ways about which we are not aware, for instance receiving a mint causing you to leave a larger tip. To the extent that our decisions and actions are controlled by something other than our "free will" it implies that perhaps we truly have it. That said, while the external factors like the mints INFLUENCE your behavior, no one can ever perfectly predict what a particular individual will do at a particular moment. To the extent that we can't, it might be that there is a free will operating in the mind as well. It could be, however, that what seems like "free will" is just random error that is currently unaccounted for by our best models of decision making and action control. Maybe it's not free will, but just currently unexplained, unconscious "cause-and-effect" processing. This is the part where I think free will remains out of the reach of scientific inquiry. The parts of our reasoning that are subject to experimenter control are clearly not free. The parts of our reasoning that are beyond control by external, experimental intervention might be free--or perhaps we just haven't figured out how to control them just yet. As psychological scientists, we can thus never PROVE the presence of free will--we can only disprove itThere's a tendency to think that if we haven't disproven free will yet, that perhaps it must be there, but there's an old quote from Carl Sagan that is appropriate here, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  

Why do things like smells or certain songs bring back vivid memories?

When you memorize a word, you might feel like that's all that gets encoded, but you are actually encoding the whole experience that you have at the time. If we take the example from word list in the lecture, there are many aspects--the lights, the sound of my voice, other things you were thinking about at the time. Later, when you recall the word, you will tend to recall all of those other aspects as well. It's actually easier to remember the word itself if we match all of those aspects at the time of the memory test--you will remember the words better if you are in the same room, with the same lights, listening to the same voice, etc.One of the most powerful sensory cues for things like this is olfaction. The sensory organs that mediate our sense of smell connect very directly to the hippocampus and also our emotional centers. If there is a particular, distinctive set of smells that you have encountered in a particular place and time, then that set of smell will cue particular memories that were formed there. My grandmother's house used to smell of traditional Lithuanian foods and faintly of moth balls. For the first 30 or so years of my life, that house was the only place that I ever encountered that particular combination. When I visited someone else's house that had a very close match to those smells, I remember feeling powerful sense of emotion and flood of memories of the times I had spent at my grandmother's house. Many people report similar experiences. From your question, I suspect you have as well.

What about the takeover of the unconscious mind in cases of brain trauma (i.e. traffic accident)?

This is a perfect example of the type of unconscious processing that I addressed in the talk. When we are faced with traumatic experiences, our brain is flooded with adrenaline and a host of neurotransmitters that activate something called the "fight or flight" system. Your brain down-regulates all processes that aren't directly related to increasing your chances of survival of the immediate situation. At the same time, a dramatic boost is delivered to the systems that are involved in speeding sensory processing, rapid decision making, and effective action control. The eyes open wide, heart rate and respiration increase, and blood floods into the muscles. Our sense of time slows down. Obviously, we don't have time to consciously ponder things as we try to avoid accident and injury. Fortunately, this system works well to promote survival.

Will Professor Vishton make his Prezi viewable by the public? 

Sure!

View the Prezi

Do you have any tips for avoiding unconscious distractions, like Twitter, while working?

It's a really good idea to eliminate distractions - even little ones - if you are trying to do your best work. Whenever you engage in some task, you activate a network of areas of the brain, a large set of circuits that perform the calculations needed to support the work. If it’s a spoken language decision making task, then obviously: (1) auditory cortex areas will increase in activity, along with (2) areas responsible for processing speech, (3) memory areas responsible for holding onto different sentence concepts, and (4) the front regions involved in intentional decision making. (Likely other areas are engaged as well, but you get the idea.)
If you are also doing a task in which you are visually searching for something, like a person’s face, you will activate (1) visual regions, (2) face recognition areas in the right hemisphere, (3) memory regions to consider where you’ve looked, (4) attention allocation regions to guide eye movements, (5) and other areas. 

Some of these areas are unique to one task or the other. But, inherently, some of the areas are involved in both tasks. As you repeatedly switch between the tasks, you rapidly ask these overlapping circuits to do two different things for brief periods. That alternation produces interference. It’s maybe like rapidly alternating the gears of your car between drive and reverse. It works… the car moves forward when you put it in drive and backward when you put it in revers, but it doesn’t have the time that it would ideally have to build up efficient speed in either direction. 

If you are multitasking, then, your brain just flat doesn’t work as well. It will be more fatigued at the end of a work day--which may contribute to that sense that you have accomplished a lot--but the information processing that it will have accomplished will be of a distinctly lower quality. One small study found that if you administer IQ tests under conditions of typical technological distraction, there is a drop in scores of about 10 points. You are, in a sense, not as smart when multitasking as you are when you are monotasking.

Sometimes this is referred to as single-tasking or monotasking. Think through the things you want to do and pick one----ONE. Then, to the best of your ability, try to block out everything else before you begin working on it. 

This sounds very simple--and in a way it is--but it can feel very uncomfortable the first few times that you try it. Turn off your email program. Turn off the phone ringer. Many phones now provide an option to block all but the most critical numbers--maybe your spouse, your children’s school, and your boss, for instance. Shut the door. Maybe even hang a sign on your door that says something like, “Please Do Not Disturb Until …” some particular time--perhaps 30 minutes or an hour later. 

It might even make sense to tell the people you work with what you are going to try. If there is a particular group of people who are likely to call or knock on your door, explain that you are going to try to focus on one particular important task for some big chunks of time. If you are needed, but it can wait for 30 minutes or so, request that they send you an email. 

You can even set up your email to automatically reply with some information about your schedule. “I plan to address incoming email messages each day between 9 and 10 am and then again from 4 to 5 pm. If this is more urgent, please call …. “ and then some contact who can knock on your door. 

To try this, you will need to figure out how to best fit this plan into your particular situation, but almost everyone can arrange for at least some monotasking time each day. As I mentioned, it can feel strange--even uncomfortable at first, but there is a strange thing that happens. After you do it for a while, it feels surprisingly good. You will likely notice that you are doing two things. First, you will get a lot done, a lot more that you otherwise would have. Second, your work will be of better quality. You will, according to a range of evidence, be more creative, efficient… and just plain smarter than you would be if you were engaged in that typical task switching activity.

Emerging argument of second brain in mesentery. Do you feel this has any role in unconscious decision? 'Gut feeling’

Sorry I passed on this when you asked during the talk itself. I drew a blank on the word "mesentery." Just a few months ago, the Lancet published a paper in which researchers newly classified this as a "new" organ in the body. I hadn't seen that work, but thanks for calling my attention to it.

What I would have said is that I agree that the digestive system contains a remarkably complex and flexible network of neurons--about 500 million of them. That's a lot less than 100 billion in the brain, but 500 million neurons still represent a large amount of "computing power." The "leptin-ghrelin waltz" is undoubtedly coordinated here. I would be surprised if the system doesn't engage in learning and even embody some analog of decision making. 

That said, describing a reaction as being made at a "gut level" is an expression rather than a neuroscience fact. There is good evidence that those "gut level" decisions are still computed in the brain. Note that even when you feel very hungry, it's activity in your brain that makes you feel that way. When you feel pain in any part of your body--your hand, for instance, the pain seems to emanate from the hand, but it's because of a pattern of activity in your brain.

Why are some random childhood memories vividly remembered more than others, even though they're not associated with traumatic events such as 9/11?

I don't think there is a good, clear, general answer to this question. Many of our earliest reported memories are associated with a traumatic experience, but I agree with you that many are not. If an experience was especially pleasant or especially unusual, that might make it more memorable. If it's a memory that we are inspired to recall frequently, that will also make it more memorable. I suspect that for any given experience, one or several of many causes might lead to better memory of it. Sorry I can't be more specific.